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U.N. pacts contain small steps but no broad accord on climate change

Delegates agree to measure greenhouse gases and help vulnerable countries gird for worsening sea levels, droughts and hurricanes. The role of China and other developing economies remains a point of contention.

December 12, 2010|By Margot Roosevelt, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cancun, Mexico — Delegates from 190 countries ended two weeks of diplomatic brinksmanship over climate change Saturday in a stalemate between rich and poor countries over cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but they pledged to move forward on a set of broad technical measures.

The new pacts envision eventual rules for measuring planet-heating pollution. They would also fund efforts in the most vulnerable countries to combat the effects of rising sea levels, longer droughts and stronger hurricanes.

The Cancun Agreements, crafted by some 9,000 delegates attending the talks at a Mexican seaside resort, rescued the 20-year climate negotiations from what appeared to be imminent collapse after last year's Copenhagen talks ended in recriminations. China and other nations accused the U.S. of failing to seriously negotiate and then pushing a last-minute nonbinding accord without a broad consensus.

About 3 a.m. Saturday, Mexico President Felipe Calderon emerged from the cavernous negotiation hall to hail the summit as a "thoroughgoing success." The Cancun Agreements, he said, lifted "the inertia of mistrust" that had threatened to paralyze the effort.

President Obama called Calderon to congratulate him on "Mexico's excellent work chairing the Cancun conference to a successful conclusion that … advances the effort to address the challenge of climate change," the White House said in a statement.

The package of agreements reiterates a promise made by industrial countries in Copenhagen for $30 billion in "fast start" money over the next two years to help poor and vulnerable countries defend themselves against climate-related damage. And it includes the intention to raise $100 billion in long-term funds by 2020.

However, the dispersal of the fast-start money remains unresolved, with industrial countries preferring to use the World Bank to make payments. Poor countries say the bank is inefficient and inattentive to their needs.

The Cancun Agreements also include plans for a broad system to prevent the cutting and burning of tropical forests, which are responsible for up to 15% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions.

Details of a forest-carbon accounting and compensation program are to be worked out in next year's negotiations in Durban, South Africa. Also to be finalized are measures to help developing countries with renewable energy technology and to create a system for monitoring and certifying emissions cuts.

Reaction from environmental groups was mixed. "The texts fall radically short on the crucial question — curbing climate pollution," said Nick Berning, U.S. spokesman for Friends of the Earth. The failure to make strict commitments to reducing greenhouse gases "could lead to a future in which temperatures rise by up to 9 degrees Fahrenheit," he said, citing a recent U.N. analysis.

That report, released last month by the United Nations Environment Program, concluded that pledges made in Copenhagen by the U.S. and other industrial nations would fail to cut emissions to the level scientists say is needed to protect the planet from drastic climate change.

Many environmentalists also praised the Cancun delegates for making "incremental' steps toward an eventual climate treaty. "The outcome in Cancun wasn't enough to save the climate," said Alden Meyer, a specialist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, "but it did restore the credibility of the United Nations as a forum where progress can be made."

The Durban meeting will come nearly 20 years after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. That treaty pledged to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to "prevent dangerous interference with the climate system."

So far, it has had little success: concentrations of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels have risen steadily, driven by a growing global population and industrialization.

Scientists say that the effects of climate disruption already are apparent and will worsen unless nations reverse course. "To postpone action ... would mean astronomical costs for future generations," Mexican Nobel Prize winner Mario J. Molina, an atmospheric scientist, warned at the conference's opening.

Developing nations say it is up to wealthy countries, which have fouled the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, to clean it up.

Last year China passed the U.S. as the biggest emitter. Together, the two countries account for 38% of global greenhouse gas pollution.

The U.S. delegation maintains that nations with rapidly growing economies such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa can afford to chip in — and if they don't, the U.S. won't sign any international treaty.

In Cancun the breach widened, with Japan and Russia saying for the first time that without participation from China and the others, they would not sign on to extend the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 agreement in which industrialized nations — the U.S. excepted — agreed to curb emissions by 2012.

Canada and Australia have signaled they will probably follow suit.

"Progress has been made," the Chinese delegation said in a statement Saturday. But "next year's negotiation task will be extremely difficult," Beijing warned, because industrial countries have failed to make additional pledges to curb emissions.

margot.roosevelt@latimes.com

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